The key to Barack Obama’s electoral success — and to the ways his post-presidency will continue to evolve — could be his talent as a writer.
It’s not simply his eloquence, his ability to convey his beliefs to a sprawling and fractious electorate. It’s also his gift at packaging his experiences and image of himself. Before he was a politician, Obama was a memoirist, and, fittingly, he has made a career of using accessibly plain English to convert life’s complications into a forward-moving narrative.
What Obama has lately lacked, though, is a meaningful mission onto which to pin his talents: His first presidential memoir was blandly written and rote, suggesting he’d rather be looking ahead than back. And Obama’s multimedia projects, like his frequent book and music recommendations and the podcast he co-hosted with Bruce Springsteen, suggest an eagerness to stay in the conversation without a clarity of purpose as to what to say or how to say it.
Which means that “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” could perhaps not be better-timed. This documentary, directed by Peter Kunhardt and executive produced by the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, serves as a reminder of surprisingly recent history.
Tracking Obama’s youth, his rise in politics, and his presidency, the three-part film — which features many on-camera talking heads, but not Obama himself — makes an argument for the 44th president’s importance on two fronts. There’s the symbolic meaning of a Black man occupying the highest office in the land, thus breaking a longstanding barrier and providing a powerful example. And, too, there is the potency and possibility of such a role in America’s cultural life being occupied by a person who believes in complexity. Both, now, seem distant.
“Obama” is at its strongest early on, in recounting the events leading to the publication of Obama’s first memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” Kunhardt has a careful eye for moments of revelation drawn from archival footage. But the overarching sense, in media coverage of the young Obama as he emerged from Harvard Law, is that there is something irreducible about the man. His manner of speaking, and the pains he takes to be really heard, are little different when promoting his memoir to a small circle of attendees at a reading as when debating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.
It’s the former setting that tends to get more love, though; this documentary about a historic First Man has more interest in the fellow he is than the way he got there. Obama’s introduction to the American people between his Democratic National Convention breakthrough in 2004 and his election as president in 2008 receives valuable shading and context from talking heads including Cobb, an insightful journalist; New Yorker editor David Remnick; Rev. Al Sharpton; Valerie Jarrett; and, strikingly to those who lived through Obama’s rise, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It’s Wright’s testimony, along with others like Cornel West’s, that helps situate the somewhat uneasy position Obama occupied as a pathbreaker who did not share many Black Americans’ personal family history of slavery and sharecropping.
These are, perhaps, meatier and more existential questions than the cut-and-thrust of policy. And both the 2008 and 2012 general elections are more or less elided. Kunhardt’s previously having made a laudatory HBO documentary about John McCain suggests that ideological distinctions between the 2008 field are not what he finds interesting, but one wonders if a version of this film that gives real voice to the opposition, one that inserts Sarah Palin as a talking head, gives a fuller sense of what Obama was up against from the first. Instead, the Clinton primary — with its rich metaphorical soup of establishment-vs.-outsider and race-vs.-gender — comes in for the richest political examination, with every misdeed of the Clintons in that era held up to the light.
It’s in the pitched battle for the 2008 nomination that Kunhardt’s gift for sifting through tape comes in handy again. The yipping, hyper-personal tone of media coverage of that race persists into the Obama presidency, with an ambient tone of manic aggression underlying each day. Obama’s time in office collided with an ascendant conservative media apparatus that was evidently driven to anger by his mere existence: Under incidents like the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Obama’s intervention into the story, one hears the thrum of white anxiety attempting to find its outlet. It’s an achievement of this documentary that by the time Rep. Joe Wilson shouts “You lie!” during the State of the Union, it seems not like an interruption, but like a culmination.
If Obama is represented here as doubly symbolically important, the substance of his presidency is somewhat less amply investigated. In fact, when political decisions made by the Obama administration come up, they’re as often seen critically, as in the firing of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod after misleadingly edited portions of a speech she made ended up on Breitbart. There, the administration showed something less than courage in capitulating to a force that was only growing in power; Obama’s persuasive powers ran into a public newly misinformed. More generally, Obama was somewhat kneecapped by the conservative media and that media’s empowerment of the Republican Party’s intransigence. This documentary doesn’t let Obama off the hook, exactly, for accomplishing less than he might have in a more congenial environment, but it sees things about him that are more interesting than policy achievements. What matters most, in “Obama,” is the man’s bearing and his presence.
By the film’s end, too, an implicit contrast is drawn with Obama’s successor. That this contrast tends to exist along stylistic and moral lines rather than political ones can be limiting, in a familiar way: We are all accustomed to critiques of Trump being loud and boorish as well as utterly self-centered, but his presidency was bad for the country because of the things he did as well as the person he is.
The case “Obama” makes is that the things that mattered in the Obama era were the 44th president’s broadcasting of kindness, of erudition, and of Blackness, in happy moments — at musical performances at the White House — and in sorrowful ones. His impromptu performance of “Amazing Grace” while delivering a eulogy for the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney comes in for a lengthy rebroadcast, and it feels, as it did in its moment, like an expression of pain and of that old familiar thing from the 2008 campaign, hope. The evil that took down Pinckney and his parishioners in the Charleston, S.C., Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church coexists, in American life, with a deep and abiding belief that there is something on the other side of it.
That belief in humanity’s capacity for transcendence, even beyond the scourge of racism, was one Obama expressed, often, in speech; when words failed him, he leaned on song. “Obama’s” depiction of that moment is powerful in its sense of what we’ve lost. There’s the reminder of the harm done since that moment, the empowerment of those who believe in violence and the silencing of grace. Then, in a more minor key, there’s the sense that this documentary — with a plain sense of what Obama could achieve in America, and what about it he could never change — is a more effective amplification of his values and ideas than Obama has lately achieved on his own.
A mini-media-empire is a good way to keep the public aware of your continued existence. But this film plays up the generative imagination of Obama so much that one hits the end of episode three missing the relative simplicity of his moment — so long as one was willing to ignore gathering storm clouds — and the presence of a figure who seemed poised to keep writing himself a new role in our civic life.
“Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” debuts on HBO Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.